Writer-performer Juan Francisco Villa has a story to tell. It’s about growing up in a poor, urban neighborhood as a Latino immigrant, facing cultural bias and family conflicts that push him away, yet finding joy and comfort in the memories of loving company and traditions—such as his mother’s empanadas, mouth-watering meat-filled pastries—which ultimately bring him back home. Sounds tasty, but haven’t we heard this all before? Yes and no. The bias and conflicts Villa dealt with resulted from his extended family being part of the Colombian drug cartel. So the terrifying places he takes us, coupled with Villa’s passionate retelling and desperate need to understand how he fits into his family’s dark past, give “Empanada for a Dream” an unexpected impact and import.
Villa’s show starts with his returning home to New York’s Lower East Side as an adult. We see that he is unnerved, but at the same time he paints an almost heartwarming picture of his old neighborhood. Villa vividly portrays an array of characters, including his big-hearted uncles, boyhood friends, assorted ne’er do wells, and comically witchlike mother, whose only redeeming quality seems to be her magical baking abilities, which are reserved for special occasions. Her repeated threats of God’s impending punishment seem extreme, but they begin to make sense after we hear things such as “a lot of people in this neighborhood have died” and learn that Villa’s cocaine-dealer uncles are responsible for as many murders as good deeds in the community.
Under Alex Levy’s direction, Villa is athletic and animated, reliving his youth with an almost childlike mania. But while the juxtaposition and jumble of childhood memories—flaky delicacies, boisterous parties, prophetic dreams, and horrendous violence—is a marvelous way to share Villa’s struggle in putting the random pieces of his past together, it also leaves us struggling to track his journey. Hana Sooyeon Kim’s expressive set doesn’t help; though striking, it’s too conceptual a frame for this personal story.
Still, Villa’s narrative details are wrenching, and we’re given a powerful glimpse into his former world, in which even a small boy’s birthday treat of McDonald’s hamburgers can reveal dangerous truths about the people he loves. Perhaps it’s a world he will never completely understand—or escape.
Presented by the Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. Oct. 27–Nov. 18. (866) 811-4111 or www.thelatc.org.
Critic’s Score: B+